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Loss Language

Posted Jun 19 2013 2:05pm
The second-to-last stanza of Anne Sexton's poem "Gods" is
Then she journeyed back to her own house
and the gods of the world were shut in the lavatory.

On May 23, 2011, I was up all night illustrating this stanza.  I was flooded with bipolar energy.  I put Venus on the toilet.  Buddha sat on the bathmat.  Zeus was taking a shower.

At some point I conked out, curling up between the laptop and the drawing pad.  A text from my dad woke me a short time later.

"Please call."

There was no pronoun.  I knew from the fact that there was no pronoun, no "me" after "call," that someone had died.

"Have you heard the news?" my dad asked on the phone.

"No," I said.

"Uncle Ken passed away last night."

"Oh my God," I said.  "You're kidding."

Uncle Ken, my dad's brother.

I heard my Great-Aunt Julie say the same words over the phone when my grandma gave her the news later that morning.

"Oh my God," Aunt Julie said.  "You're kidding."

I am a language lover.  A common fear among us language lovers is that our culture is diluting our language.  There are too many "Oh my Gods" in the world; our language has endless more complex, more beautiful expressions of grief.

Death is a dialogue between / The spirit and the dust, says Dickinson.

The heart shuts, / The sea slides back, / The mirrors are sheeted, says Plath.

I feel / the green field of hope, / and then, descending, / all this world's sorrow, / so deadly, so beautiful, says Oliver.

But those things didn't come out.  What came out was "Oh my God.  You're kidding."

I think there is no better way to express grief than with phrases like these.  These phrases are like lightning; they are the lightning that strikes through the body when the body begins to grieve.  Lines of poetry are lucid.  They are true.  But they would not have been accurate in the moment when I was on the phone with my dad and I learned my Uncle Ken had died.

I didn't do any drawing for a while after that day.  If I drew, someone would die.  But I did sketch my Uncle Ken before I went to bed.  His back was to me, he was wearing his button-down and his shorts and his tall socks, and he was standing at the top of a hill.

I can't say much about my Uncle Ken.  His details are too precious to share.  But I can tell you that I still fuss with his verb.  He was a nice guy.  He is very smart.  He was a patient teacher.  He is a good friend.  Was, is, was, is.

I'm not convinced there's a reason to pick one over the other.

= = =

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